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Coffee with Mimi

By MIMI BECKER

Community columnist

According to one source on the internet, the tomato is thought to have originated in the early 8th century in the Aztec civilization. That would make it a transplant to European markets, some estimate, around the 16th century.

It seems tomatoes were an early souvenir of the Age of Exploration. To continue this little culinary history lesson; initially the tomato had a less than auspicious launch into European kitchens.

Many people thought the tomato was poisonous. Some folks who tried out the little fruit/vegetable (a discussion for another day), actually died following the experience. Controlling all the variables in a carefully designed scientific study led to the conclusion that the tomato being the only different item offered at the prior meal, it was the tomato that did in the diners. 

However, in the end, it had to do with dishes; the kind you eat with and off of, not what the food was.  

During the period in question, persons of a wealthier status often used pewter plates, cups, bowls and utensils for regular meal service. A key ingredient in pewter was lead. The tomato, being highly acidic, would leech the lead out of the pewter and into the food. 

Less economically advantaged persons commonly used wooden dinnerware. And, there you have it. For a couple hundred years, tomatoes were enjoyed by the less wealthy of the citizenry of Europe. 

And, it was the Italians who really got into the tomato thing, gastronomic trendsetters as they are even today.  

Fast forward in the evolution of the growth of the acceptability of the tomato as an edible item; in the 1800s, a significant number of Europeans, including Italians, immigrated to the United States. Those wonderful Italians brought with them – tomatoes.

Depending on the region from which an Italian hailed, tomatoes were variably used as a base in many dishes.

In the end, or the beginning, it was all about pizza, and maybe ravioli. The general population discovered that not only was the tomato not the culprit in those long ago dining disasters, tomatoes were like an essential food group. 

In the U.S., consumption of fresh and processed tomatoes is nearly 100 pounds per capita annually. I would venture to say that figure only includes the tomatoes which run through the mass production sources. 

In other words, only tomatoes which are grown and disbursed through markets accounted for by agricultural economists are in the count. You know, grocery stores, on-line markets, co-ops, and the like. 

Your 100 pounds, 1 pound roughly every three and a half days, includes the tomatoes in pasta sauces, soups, salads and sandwich slices. And, pizza. 

What isn’t counted in the official tally is the tomatoes you, and your neighbor, grow and enjoy in the heat of the summer. These are the off the books tomatoes. However, these tomatoes are considerably more than mere nourishment. They are the stuff of bragging rights.

As an adult, just about as soon as I had a yard, I fell into the trap. If I didn’t plant anything else edible, I planted tomatoes. My first home with a yard was acquired when I was married and had two small children. Being a teacher, I had some free time in the summer. Children plus yard plus spare time equals garden.  

Personal tomato growing is both a participatory and spectator sport. There you are, in your yard.  The neighbor is in his/her yard separated from yours by a few feet. Also separated by a few feet and in full view of the other is each person’s garden.

“So what did you plant this year?” Beefsteaks, Roma’s, hybrids, heirloom, whatever. 

Start from seed or buy plants? Some people can be judgmental. Maybe the result WILL taste better if you saved the seeds from last year’s crop, started them inside in little pots shielded for weeks from the cats, watering scientifically, thinning the seedlings meticulously and then transplanting them outside when all danger of frost has passed. Maybe better than if you ran out to the farmers’ market and strategically selected the last available, nicely developed plants the very last weekend conditions and timing were advantageous for planting?

So, the plants are in the ground, cages and stakes installed, all looking properly agrarian.  

The waiting begins. Conversation turns to height of the plants, number of blossoms, techniques for suckering, watering, weeding. But, the real victory in “Tomato Wars” is who gets the first tomato.

It really doesn’t matter about anything else. The win is the first tomato.

My father-in-law did not garden. He planted a few tomato plants every year in their pristinely manicured yard. He usually got the first tomato between us. One year, I devised a plan, by accident.

I was behind in the garden prep department.  He kept checking my progress and I had to admit I didn’t have my tomato plants in yet. But, this weekend I will do it.

In early July I harvested the first tomato from my garden. My father-in-law was surprised.

I finally admitted I had bought a plant with a tomato already on it. All is fair in tomato wars.